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International Socialism, Winter 1983


Donny Gluckstein

The Workers’ Council Movement in Western Europe


First published in International Socialism Journal 2 : 18, Winter 1983, pp. 1–29.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Labour Party has been in government seven times, and seven times it has not only failed to bring socialism but created the same feeling of betrayal. Yet the parliamentary road is still trodden by a large, if increasingly demoralised, army of the left. Despite a rotten past, reformist politics survive because the mass of workers see their choices restricted to the parliamentary system or the Stalinist monolith of eastern Europe.

Yet there is a clear alternative which despite everything refuses to be buried. This is the tradition of workers’ revolutionary self-organisation – of Soviets, or workers’ councils. In 1919 Trotsky’s founding Manifesto of the Communist International declared:

To strengthen the Soviets, to raise their authority, to counterpose them to the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie – this is today the most important task of the class-conscious and honest workers of all countries... Through the medium of the Soviets, the working class will be able to come to power most surely and easily. [1]

Revolutionary struggles since then have shown his faith was not misplaced. The workers’ council has proved to be more than a Russian invention and has sprung up in a host of countries stretching from Hungary to Chile. The council stands at the heart of the revolutionary process because it is the form of organisation by which the working class strives directly for self emancipation.

The council versus parliament

In the 1848 Communist Manifesto Marx wrote: ‘The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.’ [2] This situation was not changed by the introduction of universal suffrage. In the words of Lenin: ‘Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited ...’ [3]

The difference between the parliamentary system and council democracy is enormous both in form and content. In bourgeois democracy, politics is entirely divorced from the life of the majority. Parliamentary elections are geographical and treat society as a mass of isolated atoms. At home the voter, as an individual is wide open to the influence of the capitalist media. Such citizens may only be represented by a panel of experts – the politicians, who are well paid for their labour. The MP can only be called to account for her or his actions once every five years and so no real check can be kept on the day to day decisions that are made. The ‘sovereign’ bourgeois state pretends it is free to act, when in fact its every move is circumscribed by capitalist economic interests.

Not so with council democracy. This is based on mass organisation in the workplace, not an arbitrary geographical boundary. In the council, class interest does not operate behind the scenes; the working class appears openly as the source of political decisions. Council policy is forged from collective experience, which alone gives workers the strength to throw off the influence of capitalist press and TV distortions. Workers’ democracy needs no distant experts. Councils are built from the rank and file upwards, their delegates coming directly from the factory floor. Thus they receive no special wages for their work and feel the effect of their decisions in the same way as the people who elect them. Council activity is not a separate political sphere. Delegates are under constant scrutiny from the rank and file and can be instantly recalled if they step out of line. John Reed shows how this worked in Russia:

No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented. And this was necessary, for in time of revolution, the popular will changes with great rapidity. For example, during the first week of December 1917, there were parades and demonstrations in favour of the Constituent Assembly – that is to say, against the Soviet power. One of these parades was fired on by some irresponsible Red Guards, and several people killed. The reaction to this stupid violence was immediate. Within twelve hours the complexion of the Petrograd Soviet changed. More than a dozen Bolshevik deputies were withdrawn, and replaced by Mensheviki. And it was three weeks before public sentiment subsided – before the Mensheviki were one by one retired and the Bolsheviki sent back. [4]

This extreme sensitivity to changes in working class opinion was shown in other ways. The percentage of Bolsheviks elected to the 5 All-Russian Congresses of Soviets between June 1917 and July 1918 grew as follows:

All-Russian Congress of Soviets






% of Bolsheviks [5]






In the German revolution the Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ council immediately registered the growing unpopularity of the right-wing Social Democrats:







Percentage of working class
votes going to SPD






Council democracy is not merely an alternative to parliament – it is its antithesis. The bourgeois state is based on removing political activity from the daily life of the masses. Apart from five-yearly elections, politics under western capitalism is supposedly confined to the parliamentary talking shop. But even here power is virtually absent, for behind the scenes unelected civil servants and judges make important decisions. And in the crucial area of the physical force of the state – the police, prisons and army – there is no pretence at democracy.

The workers’ council is the negation of such a system. It acts as both the legislative and executive arm of a proletarian dictatorship. Politics is made part and parcel of life at work, as is the power both to recall delegates and physically enforce decisions through armed workers’ militias.

It is not simply structure which separates workers’ councils from parliament. Under capitalism, whatever form the state takes – be it ‘democratic’, fascist or state-capitalist – decisions are dictated by the tiny group of capitalists who wield the economic power of society. So the idea that the majority can rule through parliament is a sham. In the workers’ council the real relation between the productive base of society and its political superstructure is revealed. The power of the producers is mobilised and organised into a state form. Economic and political power become one. This fusion is no accidental phenomenon, but parallels the development of mass class consciousness. This does not grow in general through learning abstract principles. It is formed by direct experience of collective struggle at the point of production. As workers grow in confidence here, they at the same time win the confidence to seize state power. In 1917, for example, Russian workers’ fight for the 8-hour day grew in parallel with the rise of the Soviets as organs of state power.

This dual thrust is encompassed by the workers’ council because it combines power at the point of production with the battle for class dominance. In the first flush of the Bolshevik revolution, Bukharin explained the content of council power in these terms:

If the state power of the proletariat is a means of economic revolution, then clearly ‘economics’ and ‘politics’ should merge into one. We also get such a merger under the dictatorship of finance capital in its classical final form, that of state capitalism. But the dictatorship of the proletariat turns all the relations of the old world upside down – in other words, the political dictatorship of the working class must inevitably entail its economic dictatorship too. [7]

The geographically based, bureaucratic and alienated capitalist state can not be adapted to the needs of workers’ power. Despite the different nuances of policy put by reactionary or reformist politicians, the parliamentary system automatically enshrines the interests of the capitalist class. By contrast, the workers’ council is the organised expression of the proletariat. And just as the interests of the exploiters cannot be reconciled with those of the exploited, so parliament cannot be reconciled with the council. Only the latter fulfills Lenin’s three criteria for proletarian democracy:

first ... the electors are the working and exploited people; the bourgeoisie is excluded. Secondly ... all bureaucratic formalities and restrictions of elections are abolished; the people themselves determine the order and time of elections, and are completely free to recall any elected person. Thirdly ... the creation of the best mass organisation of the vanguard of the working people, i.e., the proletariat engaged in large-scale industry, which enables it to lead the vast mass of the exploited, to draw them into independent political life, to educate them politically by their own experience; therefore for the first time a start is made by the entire population in learning the art of administration, and in beginning to administer. [8]

This fundamental antagonism of bourgeois and proletarian forms of class rule, has been obscured by centrists. In 1917 the Mensheviks hoped the Provisional Government and Soviets might peacefully co-exist. But in August the attempted coup by a senior General, Kornilov, shattered the illusion and showed the mass of Russian workers that the choice was either ‘all power to the Soviets’ or the drowning of their movement in blood. But the same centrist ideas reappeared in Germany within the Independent Socialists led by Kautsky and Hilferding. During the first weeks of the German revolution Kautsky wrote: ‘The National Assembly [i.e. the bourgeois parliament] and Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils are equally necessary, but each of these two institutions has its own tasks ...’ [9]

In the unstable conditions of dual power prevailing at the time both parliamentary forms and councils could temporarily co-exist. But very soon German capitalism called upon their own version of Kornilov, the right-wing Social Democrat – Gustav Noske who had more success then his Russian counterpart in crushing workers’ revolt. The culmination of this reactionary offensive came in March 1919 when 2 million Germans, following Kautsky’s ideas, struck to make the government ‘recognise the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils.’ The ruling class reply was a murderous repression in which many hundreds were killed. Five months before Lenin had predicted just such a debacle from Kautsky’s position:

To say to the Soviets: fight, but don’t take all state power into your hands, don’t become state organisations – is tantamount to preaching class collaboration and ‘social peace’ between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. It is ridiculous even to think that such a position in the midst of fierce struggle could lead to anything but ignominious failure. [10]

Unfortunately centrist confusion lives on today. Left Labourites, with their subtle blend of action in the Commons backed by mobilisation outside, fall for the same trap as Kautsky. Such policies either result in the old reformist formula which leaves the mass of workers as onlookers to the so-called ‘real’ struggle in Parliament (as a prelude to the real betrayal), or they can end with ruling class repression as seen in Spain, 1936 and Chile in 1973.

Workers’ power can only be built by smashing the political power of the capitalist class in both its military and parliamentary forms. There can be no truce between workers’ power in the councils and parliament, for the two embody entirely different methods as class forces.

As Lenin puts it:

The more highly [bourgeois] democracy is developed, the more the bourgeois parliaments are subjected by the stock exchange and the bankers. Even in the most democratic bourgeois state the oppressed people at every step encounter the crying contradiction between the formal equality proclaimed by the ‘democracy’ of the capitalists and the thousands of real limitations and subterfuges which turn the proletarians into wage-slaves ... [11]

While the cumulative experience of three quarters of a century of workers’ struggle offers us a theoretical model of a workers’ state, it must be said that outside Russia the actual council movements have only approximated to it. This is not surprising, for they were hastily improvised in the heat of battle and most were smashed by capitalist state intervention before they acquired a fully worked out form. Even the Soviets, faced by civil war and the isolation of the industrial working class both at home and internationally, became hollow caricatures of their former selves within a few years. Under Stalin they became mere cyphers for the bureaucracy. Thus the democratic strength of the council is not guaranteed by formal structure as much as its ability to articulate and lead the fight for working class aspirations. In western Europe during the First World War, for example, despite the complete capitulation of all the official socialist and trade union organisations, the embryonic council movements led tens and then hundreds of thousands of workers in class struggle.

So it is not so much a perfection of procedures but the self-activity and independent action of the mass of workers that has vindicated the council time and again. It is for this reason that Lenin says that ‘Soviet power is a million times more democratic than the most democratic bourgeois republic.’ [12]

Councils and the struggle for power

Councils are organs of direct mass struggle. From the start they are composed of delegates elected in the workplaces, who meet together to transcend individual productive units and give a united lead to workers of a given area.

Such rank and file bodies are different from the two other typical forms of workers’ organisation – parties and trade unions. As organs of mass struggle they only arise in periods of growing class warfare, when capitalism is in crisis and workers are forced to consider revolutionary methods of action. Accordingly councils cannot be created at will, according to a pre-arranged formula. They can only be promoted when the mass of workers feel the need to solve their specific problems in a new way. By contrast, parties and trade unions, at least under bourgeois democracy, can exist during periods of downturn or capitalist stability.

The council should not be confused with the party. The latter is a voluntary organisation. Individuals choose to join parties because they accept the politics. The party is guided by a world-view, and thus it proceeds from the general to the particular. The council is non-voluntary, or as Gramsci put it, a ‘natural’ workers’ organisation. Its delegates are chosen to express the collective will of workplace units, whether they be reactionary or revolutionary. This body begins with specific problems and in the struggle broadens out into political questions.

The trade unions is also a ‘natural’ organisation in that it follows the contours of the capitalist economy, organising on the lines of particular industries. But unions are limited in crucial ways. They tend to recruit one type of worker – be they engineers, railwaymen or teachers, etc. By their nature trade unions tend to fight only for sectional aims such as wages and conditions. They exist to negotiate with capitalism on the price of labour and so employ a band of officials who bargain on behalf of the members. Councils, by contrast, are based above all on the direct and independent activity of the rank and file. They arise at a time when negotiation with the system has become virtually impossible, and when the working class can win nothing unless it unites on as broad a basis as possible. Thus they burst through the barriers of sectionalism and unite all sections of workers. As a class organisation they inevitably confront questions of political and social power. The crisis they face often imposes many tasks on the councils. In Russia maintenance of transport, food supplies and public order fell to the Soviets even before the struggle for state power. In Germany these, plus the pressing question of demobilisation had to be solved. Even the embryonic council movements in Britain and Germany faced a range of questions which took them far beyond the trade union sphere – war and peace, workers’ control and so on.

There is, of course, an overlap between party, union and council. Party members are active in workplaces, and shop stewards, the lowest rung of trade union machines, often play the leading role in councils. Nevertheless the basic distinction between these three remains.

The general relationship of party and council was first elaborated by Lenin after 1905. Against the Petersburg Bolshevik whose reaction to the Soviet was that it should either accept the party programme or disband, Lenin answered: ‘the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies or the party? I think it is wrong to put the question in this way and that the decision must certainly be: both the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and the party.’ Recognising its non-voluntary character, Lenin concluded: ‘it would be inadvisable for the Soviet to adhere wholly to any one party.’ [13]

The October revolution was the only time councils achieved state power, and their success was made possible by the action of the Bolshevik party. But Russia was not the only example of council organisation in the the First World War. A number of countries such as Germany, Britain and Italy made important advances in this direction. However, it is important to grasp the difference between Russia’s Soviets and these western council movements. Trotsky wrote of the former in these words:

The Soviet came into being as a response to an objective need – a need born of the course of events. It was an organisation which was authoritative and yet had no traditions; which could immediately involve the scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people while having virtually no organisational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the proletariat; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self-control – and most important of all, which could be brought out from underground within twenty-four hours. [14]

While this ‘big bang’ description represents the way Soviets emerged in Russia, it does not fit the development of councils in the bourgeois democracies of western Europe. Between 1915 and 1920 council movements sprang up in Germany, Italy and Britain, but these showed less of the fantastic spontaneity seen in Russia. In the latter factory organisation and trade unions were continually suppressed. When workers were able to organise legally they improvised Soviets within 24 hours. In western Europe there were strong traditions of trade unionism and legal workers’ parties. There were therefore many more barriers to revolutionary struggle and many institutions to impede the progress of workers’ councils.

The following accounts are examples of how Russian and British workers approached struggle quite differently. The first describes events in Rostov-on-Don in 1902:

Management sought to reduce wages and therefore the Don committee of the social democracy issued a proclamation with a summons to strike ... [Soon] every industrial work was at a standstill, and every day monster meetings of fifteen to twenty thousand were held in the open ai r... Social democratic popular speakers appeared publicly, inflammatory speeches on socialism and political freedom were delivered and received with immense enthusiasm, and revolutionary appeals were distributed by tens of thousands of copies ... It goes without saying that there was a massacre here. [15]

In Britain, where workers had fought for and won the right to strike and join unions, militancy was circumscribed by tradition, as this building worker, talking of the 1900s, shows: ‘There would be, in our trade, a delegate elected by the branch and he could only call out the men in his own trade, sometimes after waiting weeks for executive committee sanction.’ The executive committee in question consisted of men who wanted above all ‘to conserve the funds for sick, superannuation & funeral benefits. They all wanted to be buried decently.’ [16]

Despite the striking differences between Tsarist Russia and the parliamentary states of the West, council movements were able to develop in both areas. The western movements are particularly valuable to revolutionaries who today face the problem of mass reformism and bourgeois democracy.

Councils in the West

In Germany, Britain and Italy council movements followed a common pattern imposed by the international nature of the First World War, and its attendant capitalist crisis. They all began in large factories such as Beardmore’s in Glasgow, the AEG plants in Berlin or Fiat’s in Turin. Like the 40,000 strong Putilov works in Petrograd, these factories brought together vast numbers of workers. This gives the lie to reformists like Kautsky who contended that Soviets were the result of a backward working class who lacked the ‘benefits’ of modern capitalism and its parliamentary system. In both East and West councils began life in the most highly concentrated and advanced of industries – metalworking.

Engineers, and in particular skilled engineers were in an especially powerful position in the First World War. While most industries stagnated or declined, the metal industry, which produced the guns, bombs and tanks, expanded rapidly. So did the demand for skilled engineers and this gave them tremendous bargaining power. Although new machines and semi- and unskilled workers were being brought into the industry, the skilled men were still needed to set up tools and train newcomers. While other workers could be intimidated with the threat of conscription, engineers felt relatively safe. They knew a skilled munitions worker was more useful in his factory than in the trenches.

However industrial muscle does not necessarily lead to revolutionary action. Before the First World War engineers had enjoyed a degree of job security and were highly paid relative to other workers. This made them less militant than many other sections. But wartime conditions forced a sudden change. The crisis of capitalism that took the brutal form of an imperialist world war, found a special expression on the shopfloor.

Metalworkers’ hours were pushed to the limit. In Berlin, for example, they worked 11 hours a day, six days a week and between 5 and 12 hours on Sundays. Everywhere strikes on war work became illegal. Munitions workers were unable to search for better pay and conditions because they were forbidden to change employers. In Germany and Italy, individuals who resisted risked immediate conscription. All this was against a background of raging inflation which in the war years pushed up prices in Britain, Germany and Italy by 250%, 300% and 400% respectively.

Despite the severity of the capitalist onslaught there was no hope of resistance from workers’ traditional organisations. Until 4 August 1914, millions of workers had stood in the ranks of the Second International, a body pledged to all-out opposition to imperialist war. But within a few days this organisation collapsed ignominiously as its reformist leaders rushed to ally themselves with the ‘national war effort of their countries. The Bolsheviks were one of the few honourable exceptions to this chauvinism.

The trade unions went even further than the reformist parties by joining army recruitment committees. Full-time officials were soon busy sending their members off to death and mutilation in the trenches. While the battle raged on the fronts, at home reformist leaders promised a cessation of class struggle and arranged social contracts. Henceforth workers and bosses were to live harmoniously together in the ‘peace of the fortress’. [17]

Abandoned by their leaders, metalworkers had to depend on their own efforts to survive. By initiating resistance to the policies of social peace, they began a train of development that could lead to workers’ councils. The process roughly followed this schema:

shop stewards’

rank and file

geographical unit
workers’ council


armed power
soviet state


Militancy began in areas with a tradition of shopfloor organisation. In Glasgow, for example, shop stewards had led unofficial action as early as 1903. By 1914 both Beardmore’s at Parkhead and Weir’s of Cathcart had shop stewards’ committees, which was unusual at that time. Germany’s councils were to be dominated by the Berlin ‘Obleute’. These were equivalent to shop stewards and before the war consistently fought for union democracy and the replacement of right-wing officials. Italy’s movement centred on Turin where a system of ‘internal commissions’ operated before 1914. The commissions were like shop stewards’ committees and reflected the growing rank and file militancy seen in mass strikes during 1912 and 1913.

Confidence gained in pre-war shopfloor organisation and activity was the starting point for wartime militancy. This emerged over seemingly trivial issues – parity between different workshops in a factory, bonuses and overbearing foremen were typical bones of contention. But even campaigning on such matters took considerable courage during the war. All the best known leaders and a great majority of workers at first accepted the patriotic ranting of the media. Any strike on war work was automatically denounced as treachery and sabotage. So how was it possible for militants to lead rank and file action, when the majority accepted arguments for social peace? Two things were essential: firstly, the shop stewards who generated Europe’s councils through shopfloor activity were socialists. Practically all of them saw through the nationalist arguments and opposed workers killing each other in the name of King and country. This ideological resistance was combined with a second factor: prestige among the rank and file gained through a history of workshop militancy. Only where a general understanding of the crisis was linked to strength in specific workplaces could the foundations of independent workers’ action be laid in individual factories.

It was not long before militants were forced to organise on yet a wider scale. In Glasgow militant stewards found they alone could lead the campaign for a 2 pence an hour wage rise, and so brought out 10,000 engineers in February 1915. Despite the official ‘social peace’ between German unions and employers, the Berlin Obleute kept up a constant stream of agitation which forced the government to set up special conciliation machinery for metal manufacturing in the city. As a result works committees were recognised by the employers. In the harsh climate of German industrial relations, this represented a big change. The Italian council movement only took off after the war, but it too began with economic issues such as the implementation of the 8-hour day.

The social crisis unleashed by war was not something which went away after single issue campaigns. With the official trade union leaderships dormant the stewards had to fill the vacuum with a permanent and alternative source of authority. The Clyde Workers’ Committee was a typical example of this second stage of the council process where rank and file organisation spans a single industry. It consisted mainly of munitions shop stewards, 300 of whom met weekly. The Committee was no model institution, but an improvised body, as this interview shows:

Q. Were you a member of the Clyde Workers’ Committee?

A. It depends what you call a member. The Clyde Workers’ Committee was a mixed crowd which had practically no constitution. It was more a collection of angry Trade Unionists than anything else ... a place where the different kindred spirits of the different workshops met to discuss all our grievances. It was not absolutely necessary for your shop to send you; you could represent a minority in the shop just the same as a majority, even though the minority was one.’ [18]

Although a loose organisation, the Clyde Workers’ Committee that emerged in late 1915 was a genuine rank and file movement. Born out of the February 1915 strike committee it was not the individuals but the shop delegates that gave it strength. Thus its statement of principles was no idle boast: ‘We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.’ [19]

In Berlin the development from factory to rank and file organisation took a different course. The metal shop stewards could not work as openly as the Clydesiders, but through the turners’ branch of the metal union they were to construct an organisation of 100 leading stewards who linked the principal engineering factories of Berlin together. Despite the secretive way they operated, this group, known as the ‘revolutionary Obleute’, commanded the votes of two thirds of Berlin’s metal shop stewards. In Italy too, the future council leaders were to come from a group of militants who combined shopfloor activism with agitation inside the union under the name of the ‘Provisional Committee’. [20]

The passage from organisation within a single factory to one that connected several engineering factories together did not mean that shop stewards’ organisation at the base declined. On the contrary it was only because shopfloor militants felt confident about fighting on the immediate issues that they were able to organise on a broader and higher level than before. Thus as the council process advanced its shopfloor basis did not weaken. Strength at the base was the precondition for any ambitious developments at the top.

Nevertheless, rank and file organisation in metalworking was still limited in scope. The industry was but one among many. Skilled engineers were a male, privileged and well-paid minority. To meet the needs of the crisis situation this vanguard section had to link up with the masses and carry the council process forward. Only when the movement became a geographical entity, incorporating all kinds of workers in the area, could the shop stewards be said to have built a workers’ council.

This was not simply a matter of organisation, but of strategy. While issues like a wage rise in engineering, or maltreatment by a foreman might unite workers in one factory or industry, they had no attraction for other sections, nor did they solve the real problems of the crisis. To create workers’ councils, the shop stewards had to raise questions which united the section to the class, which fused immediate economic issues with politics.

Britain and Italy prove this by default, for both were unable to make the transition from rank and file organisations in one industry to real workers’ councils. At first sight this seems surprising, for all the leading shop stewards were socialists who had a broad view of workers’ struggles. However their failure is instructive, for it illustrates the problems created by a lack of a revolutionary practice and of a revolutionary party.

The British shop stewards’ movement grew up between 1915 and 1918. The major question affecting everyone was the war. It was important not only in the trenches but at home where rationing, the social contract and the outlawing of strikes were a direct result. But the British stewards were afraid to raise the political question of a strike against the war, for fear of losing support in the factories. While leading shop stewards were privately opposed to imperialism, in public they avoided all politics and talked only of economic action – of the struggle of wage earners. This approach was summed up by J.T. Murphy’s pamphlet, The Workers’ Committee. Writing in 1917 he sought to ‘erect the structure of the Great Industrial Union (and) invigorate the labour movement with the real democratic spirit.’ [21] Murphy nowhere mentioned the war, and this was a fatal weakness in his argument. By talking of economic struggle without reference to the extraordinary political situation of the time, he offered no strategy that could carry militant engineers beyond the confines of their own industry. The metalworkers could have been the vanguard of the British class struggle, but their strength was never harnessed for this purpose.

It is significant that it was on the Clyde, where John Maclean preached a Marxist understanding of the war unique in Britain, that there was the first attempt to go beyond the sectional issues. This occurred when the government proposed ‘dilution’ to raise output. Dilution meant the introduction of unskilled workers into jobs formerly reserved for skilled men. This could be seen as something that concerned craftsmen, or as part of a general attack on trade unionism. Both Maclean and the Clyde Workers’ Committee groped for a strategy which could make it the latter. At the end of 1915 Maclean proposed that Clyde workers accept increased munitions production only on condition that the government:

take over all munitions works, pay the capitalists nothing per cent dividend, double the workers’ wages, shorten hours to 8 and give control of the establishments to the workers themselves. We guarantee that very soon the workers would treble the war output and justify the proposals from a pro war standpoint. [22]

Knowing that no capitalist government would do this, Maclean hoped the real motives behind the war would be exposed. This tactic might seem crude, but it was at least an attempt to synthesise socialist and industrial agitation. The Clyde shop stewards soon adopted a watered down version of Maclean’s strategy. But the Clydesiders had few links with the rest of the country. The government took advantage of this weakness and broke resistance by forcing dilution on a weak factory and thus splitting the movement. Arrests soon followed and the Clyde Workers’ Committee went into abeyance for a couple of years.

In the rest of Britain stewards lacked a practice which could synthesise workshop struggles with the general concerns of the working class. This was to have tragic results. A few months after the Bolshevik revolution, the British stewards at last made their minds up to strike against the war. But it was too much to expect the rank and file, who had not seen their stewards agitating against the war before, to suddenly become converted to this idea. Only in Glasgow where John Maclean had consistently denounced imperialism was the strike call taken up with any enthusiasm. But because there was no national organisation, no party pushing the idea of revolutionary anti-imperialism, the projected strike of January 1918 was never to materialise. Glasgow’s stewards did not feel strong enough to act alone. In England, the shop stewards took the following position:

If we could only be certain that the German workers would follow suit, we would have no hesitation in calling for an immediate policy of down tools and damn the consequences. But we are not in touch with our fellow workers in Germany. It may be that the German workers would be willing to do the bidding of their warlords by attempting to invade these islands. In which case, they would get the surprise of their lives. [23]

The weakness of this multilateralist position was soon exposed. For within days of that article being written 400,000 German workers came out on strike against the war! In Britain, however, work continued as normal.

The British shop stewards, with Glasgow to the fore, traced the early stages of the council process, but stopped there. They did not see that in a general crisis of capitalism no issue can be fought simply on an economic basis. Even to win and maintain wage levels in wartime, for example, meant taking on not just the employers, but the state which had outlawed strike action. In other words it involved politics. Because they failed to generalise their struggle the rank and file movement in British engineering was doomed to defeat. All the leading militants fell prey to victimisation once the exceptional demand for munitions disappeared in 1919.

In contrast to Britain, Turin’s metal shop stewards were openly political and revolutionary in outlook. During the war they built a powerful factory movement through the ‘internal commissions’ of trade unionists. In 1919 Gramsci argued that if the commissions were centralised and reorganised on a workshop basis to include all workers not just the minority in the unions, they could form the foundation of a workers’ council state. Turin’s militants eagerly latched onto this idea. But despite their radical intentions the council process in Italy stopped at its formative stage.

Once again the problem was an inability to generalise, this time for structural reasons. The conditions that had made a strong shop stewards’ movement possible were unique to Turin. This city alone had modern automobile factories filled with thousands of confident workers. Industry existed in the rest of the country, particularly around Genoa and Milan, but only Turin had both the large productive units and traditions of independent rank and file organisations that encouraged the council process. To move from factory organisation to rank and file movement and eventually to workers’ councils required more than radical ideas. It required an ability to transcend Turin’s particular geographical and industrial boundaries and evolve a strategy that could link its vanguard to the rest of the working class. Only a revolutionary party, with roots in a variety of industries and with national organisation could produce such a strategy.

Again and again revolutionary intentions became absorbed into purely local affairs. The Turin stewards rightly saw that rank and file confidence could be increased by struggle on the shop floor. They reorganised the old internal commissions along the lines proposed by Gramsci. The new organs, called ‘factory councils’ fought for workers’ control on the shop floor and were designed as a springboard to expropriating the capitalists and constructing socialism. But in the isolation of one city the horizon of struggle was too narrow. The factory councils were soon bogged down in the details of production. Workers’ control became a question of choosing an acceptable foreman, not driving out the capitalists. Far from leading on to workers’ councils and a struggle for political power, the factory councils came to see Fiat management as its sole enemy. Instead of developing into a centralised force for workers’ power the movement remained at the level of councils for individual factories alone.

The Italian revolutionaries rightly saw workers’ control as an important part of the struggle for socialism, but in the fortress of Turin they made a fetish of it, divorcing it from the broad strategy needed to overthrow the system. This is clear from Gramsci’s writings in September 1919:

The working masses must take adequate steps to acquire complete self-government, and the first step along this road consists in disciplining themselves, inside the workshop ... Nor can it be denied that the discipline which will be established along with the new system will lead to an improvement in production ... So to those who object that by this method we are collaborating with our opponents, with the owners of the factories we reply that on the contrary this is the only means of letting them know in concrete terms that the end of their domination is at hand. [24]

Only when the tanks moved in to crush Turin’s striking engineers in April 1920 did it become clear to Gramsci and his supporters that ‘power in the factory is just one element in relation to state power’. [25] Now the lesson was obvious. Revolutionary intentions were not enough – a party was needed to generalise the sectional struggle of the metalworkers and use their strength as a vanguard of a much larger mass movement. Economic struggle could not acquire political significance through an effort of will, it needed a strategy which linked the vanguard to the rearguard. This strategy did not drop from thin air but had to come from an organised party.


Berlin’s revolutionary Obleute were to lead the most advanced council movement in western Europe. They too began with agitation around economic questions, but in June 1916 they took an important step forward. Karl Liebknecht, the only member of the Reichstag to vote against war credits, had spoken in public and was arrested. The Obleute brought out 55,000 Berlin workers for a short protest strike. But with most workers the transition to political struggle could not be accomplished so quickly, and it took a few years before the majority were prepared to act decisively against the war.

This radicalisation was brought about by a series of mass strikes which grew in size and political consciousness from one year to the next. The first took place in April 1917, when the Obleute led 200,000 Berliners in a strike against reduced food rations. At this point the first factory councils emerged, but the government stood firm against their demands and the movement collapsed.

Yet within a year the Obleute had reorganised and were to lead 400,000 strikers out for an acceptance of Bolshevik peace proposals. Because they had built up their sectional economic strength and linked it to class political issues like the war, the metalworkers became the spearhead of a broad class offensive. Out of this a city-wide workers’ council could be built. Like the Petrograd Soviet, the Berlin workers’ council that came out of the January 1918 mass strike was made up of delegates elected 1 per 1000 workers. They came directly from the factories, and 414 members thus chosen elected a committee to take their demands to government. Again the strike was crushed, but this time it took military intervention to restore capitalist order.

The German events confirm Trotsky’s assessment drawn from the Russian experience:

for the countries of the east, just as for the countries of the west, Soviets are the form of organisation which can and must be created from the very first stage of a broad revolutionary upsurge. Soviets usually arise as revolutionary strike organisations and then extend their functions and increase their authority in the eyes of the masses. At the first stage they become organisations of a revolutionary uprising. Finally, after the victory of the uprising they are transformed into organs of revolutionary power. [26]

In Germany this final development of the workers’ council into an organisation of revolutionary power came in November 1918. At the beginning of the month the sailors mutinied at Kiel and rapidly spread their revolt to other towns all over Germany. Wherever they went bodies calling themselves ‘Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils’ were set up. But very few of these were the genuine article. Only in those cities where there was a tradition of independent rank and file action were the workers’ delegates actually elected at the point of production. Such a was the case in Bremen, Frankfurt-am-Main, Hamburg and Stuttgart, for example.

In the small non-industrial towns of Bavaria, on the other hand, there were ‘workers’ councils’ which had been self appointed and consisted of such people as police officials, prison inspectors, merchants and brewers. [27] Even in fairly large industrial centres the lack of an independent workers’ current allowed reformist bureaucrats to dominate. In such cases the councils would be arranged through backdoor deals between various party officials and trade union full-timers. If there was a popular movement that could not be ignored, such bureaucratic councils would be approved by acclamation at mass demonstrations. [28] The only guarantee of a genuine workers’ council was the existence of a workers’ movement based on workshop organisation and traditions.

On 9th November the wave of revolution reached the capital, vast columns of workers and soldiers descended on the city centre to declare the Kaiser deposed. Very soon a workers’ council, built on the lines of the January 1918 strike committee was established. The Berlin council claimed to be the highest political power in Germany. This time it had military force – the delegation of the mutinous regiments – to back its claims. But the revolution did not mean just change at the top level, for within days a complete system of councils had arisen. Though planned by no individual, these quickly spread to cover every aspect of Berlin life.

Rosa Luxemburg, the foremost revolutionary in Germany, had not foreseen this development after 1905. She saw the revolution proceeding in the following way: ‘In a word: the economic struggle is the transmitter from one political center to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of the soil for economic struggle. Cause and effect here continually change places.’ [29] This description missed one important point. Both Russia and Germany demonstrated that the revolutionary process is structured by the council, which does not alternate between economic and political struggle, but fuses them within the one fighting organisation.

This was graphically portrayed by events in Berlin. The fusion of politics and economics had two aspects – both vertical and horizontal. First of all there was a hierarchy of council organizations, its apex the Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council. Beneath this were the district workers’ and soldiers’ councils which were seizing control of the functions of municipal government. The streets were patrolled by their militias of workers and mutinous soldiers, and the more radical of the local councils drew up plans to expropriate the banks and collectivise private housing.

At the base of the pyramid were the factory councils which had tremendous strength. This is how one bourgeois newspaper described the situation in the factories:

The workers arrive on time, read their newspapers and slowly begin to work. This is interrupted by debates, arguments and meetings. The employers are powerless. All power is in the hands of the workers’ committees. On all questions ranging from converting the factories back to peacetime production, hire and fire, work methods – on all these the workers’ committees have the last word. [30]

The three levels of council organisation – state, municipal and factory – were not isolated. There was, at that time only one word to cover all these workers’ organisations- ‘Arbeiterrat’, for all of them were but phases of a single council movement. Only during the degeneration of the revolution and the consequent fragmenting of the workers’ struggle were their functions separated.

The fusion of politics and economics was also reflected within each council organisation. Debates at the Central Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council ranged from matters of state through to the abolition of piecework, the 8-hour day and local strikes. The same spread of issues were discussed in the factories. On 2 December 1918, for example, a mass meeting of the 10,000 Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabrik workers heard a speech from Liebknecht, voted to resist threats of closure by prompt collectivisation, and passed a motion denouncing the Social Democratic provisional government.

The close connection between sectional and class struggle was an inherent part of the workers’ council process because it raised strength at the point of production into an act of politics. Within it the whole spectrum of workers’ struggle could be contained. As Gramsci was to learn in Italy, it was dangerous to isolate the different aspects of struggle and put any single one on a pedestal. Workers’ control, for example, could not be treated as an end in itself – but could only be achieved as part of the struggle for state power, just as this final goal could not be achieved unless confidence had been gained in the fight for control of the workshops. Opponents of the revolution within the German labour movement did their best to break the unity of struggle. They argued, for example, that the Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council should concentrate on political issues, while the factory councils limit themselves to internal economic matters. However they were blocked by rank and file resistance, and the separation of functions was only brought about by a series of defeats later on.

The revolution of November 1918 certainly did encourage a vast network of council organisation. However this new form of power was not without rivals. The Kiel mutiny had shaken the confidence of the imperial state machine and allowed the growth of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, but the new situation could be summed up ‘The Kaiser has gone, the generals remain’. For here was a classic ‘dual power’ situation. Despite the revolution the High Command still had the ability to reorganise its force. So too had the remnants of the Kaiser’s political state which continued to function, although reorganised as a ‘Provisional Government’ under right-wing Social Democrats. Nevertheless, the old state apparatus was far from secure. It could easily have been smashed, as this account by Scheidemann, the second in command in the Provisional Government shows:

Noisy processions of many thousands, most armed to the teeth were continually organised by revolutionaries in front of the Chancery ... The Provisional Government had hardly any protection. They practically did their work as prisoners. The Social Democratic members of the government dared not venture into the streets in daytime as they would have been killed. To Liebknecht’s followers we pretended we had a military guard although we had none. [31]

Despite this melodramatic description a dual power situation prevailed in Germany. To become the basis of a new state, the workers’ councils had to physically disperse the Military High Command and close the Ministerial offices. For if reactionary forces were allowed to regroup, the councils themselves would be smashed. For its part Russia had already shown how unstable a dual power situation could be, for on two occasions, after the July Days and during the Kornilov attack, the revolution had been in mortal danger. Only the seizure of all power in October 1917 had secured the Soviets’ future. The German councils did not heed this example and within two months of the November revolution they lay in ruins. How was this possible? To answer this question we must look at the nature of workers’ council leadership.

Council leadership

The process that leads to the workers’ council begins in the vanguard section of the working class. In the case of the First World War, only metal workers had the industrial muscle and organising traditions to undertake this task. During the pioneering stage of factory organisation and rank and file movement, leadership naturally tends to fall to the most determined and resolute socialist militants. This is not accidental: councils only arise in periods of crisis when the ruling class will be using its ideological and physical force to crush opposition. Therefore only those who combine a rejection of capitalist ideology with organisational resilience will be able to lead resistance. In this instance, leadership fell to revolutionary metal shop stewards.

However, as the council extends its influence from the vanguard to the rest of the class, left-wing influence is by no means guaranteed. The council is a genuine barometer of rank and file feeling. So if it embraces a mass of workers who are not revolutionary, then the council leadership will inevitably cease to be revolutionary. This is what happened after the February 1917 revolution in Russia, when the Soviets came under Social Revolutionary and Menshevik domination. The same occurred in the Austrian and Hungarian council movements. In Berlin the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council fell from revolutionary control the day after the revolution. It entered the period of dual power led by a committee of 18 reformists with only 6 left centrists opposing them. In the words of one delegate at the National Council Congress a month later, the German council movement was being led by a ‘suicide club’. [32]

It is not a contradiction to say that in most situations council movements will in all probability be initiated by revolutionaries, but as soon as they spread beyond the vanguard to become mass institutions, they will fall into reformist hands. Only after a period of crisis and class warfare will the mass of workers turn to the idea of council power and put revolutionaries back into leadership.

As early as 1905 Lenin had recognised that while the Soviets were a necessary framework for revolution, the impulse to move forward to the seizure of power had to come from an organisation with a unified will – from the party:

[Soviets] are necessary for welding the masses together, for creating unity in the struggle, ... But they are not sufficient ... for organising an uprising in the narrowest sense of the word. [33]

In 1917 it was the existence of the Bolshevik party with mass roots which was able to ‘patiently explain’ the historical role of the Soviets and win their leadership. [34] With a mass revolutionary party in Germany, the same could have been achieved, for the workers’ and soldiers’ councils were rapidly moving to the left under the pressure of the crisis and reactionary conspiracies. [35]

However, the revolutionary left, led by the Spartakists and Obleute, made a fatal mistake. By January 1919 the Social Democrats had assembled a force of reactionary soldiers and decided to provoke Berlin’s radical workers into a premature uprising. The revolutionaries had a clear choice. As a minority in the class they could either depend on their own resources and take up the challenge to open insurrection, or they could work to win a majority in the workers’ and soldiers’ council. They were drawn into the first course, and without mass support, were resoundingly crushed. This held back the German revolution for a long period and robbed it of its finest leaders – Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

The lessons of the German revolution show that (i) there could be no victory without a mass party to indicate the revolutionary line of march; and (ii) that that line of march had to include winning a majority in the workers’ and soldiers’ councils. October 1917 showed the correctness of Lenin’s policies in Russia. The defeat of January 1919 in Germany only served as negative proof of the same point.

Towards the party

The period just after the 1917 revolution was one of the high water marks of workers’ activity this century. However, with the exception of Russia, revolutionaries faced this turbulent period without the assistance of an organised mass party. Their work was centred upon, and coloured by the development of the councils. So while the experiences of western revolutionaries were not as rich as the Russian (which saw the interplay of the Bolshevik party, Soviets and masses), they still contain significant lessons.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of this period in the West was the discovery of a political practice adapted to conditions of mass trade unionism and reformism. To understand what a breakthrough this was we must briefly consider the ideas of socialism which prevailed before the First World War. This was dominated by the Second International whose activity was based on the following premise:

It falls to [the parties] of Social Democracy to organise and lead proletarian political struggle. It is the task of union organisation to coordinate and lead working class economic struggle. [36]

This division of politics and economics – the struggle for state power and power at the point of production – was the death of all revolutionary practice.

The workers’ council experience smashed through the false dichotomies of the Second International. Workers were forced by the crisis to link their rank and file power in the factories to struggle against the capitalist state and its murderous war. This experience forced revolutionaries to dramatically re-fashion the way they operated. In Britain for example, there was a long tradition of preaching socialism from the street corners and soap boxes. Industrial activity was seen as something divorced from this work. Marxism was learnt at political meetings. The fight of the Clyde shop stewards changed this. In the height of the 40-hours agitation during January 1919 the Socialist Labour Party, which had pioneered the Clyde Workers’ Committee, passed a conference resolution which recognised that: ‘It is essential that education and activity should be the concrete expression, one of the other ...’ [37] This deceptively simple formula overturned decades of mechanistic Marxism which had dogged the revolutionary left in Britain.

In Germany Rosa Luxemburg abandoned her support for geographically elected assemblies to argue that socialist activity be based on the struggle for workers’ power via the councils:

Happily, we have got beyond the time when it was said: the proletariat has to go through the school of socialism. (It seems that Marxists of the Kautsky school still live in that period.) According to them the proletarian masses will learn through conferences, and the handing out of leaflets and pamphlets. No, the school of socialism does not consist of that. The proletariat is at school when it goes into action.

Comrades, our slogan here is: ‘in the beginning was the deed’, and that deed means the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils realising their vocation and learning how to be the only power in all of Germany. [38]

Italy’s council movement developed last, and Gramsci was able to synthesise lessons of the period to produce a picture of revolutionary activity in the West which encompassed the councils and the revolutionary party. The latter’s importance had been underlined by the victory of Russia’s Soviets and the successive defeats elsewhere.

As he put it:

The existence of a cohesive and highly disciplined communist party with factory, trade-union and co-operative cells that can co-ordinate and centralize in its central executive committee the whole of the proletariat’s revolutionary action, is the fundamental and indispensable condition for attempting any experiment with Soviets. [39]

However, these new insights into revolutionary practice could not be acted upon without difficulty. The Second International had not only discouraged revolutionary practice but obstructed the formation of revolutionary parties. With the important exception of Russia, the First World War found the revolutionary left fatally divided. Nevertheless, the mass struggles that followed showed that the raw material for new parties was present in the shape of two sorts of vanguard.

On the one hand there was a layer of rank and file leaders – the Clyde munitions stewards, the revolutionary Obleute and Turin’s workshop commissars. They had the strength to pull out thousands in militant strike action and were, as we have seen, conscious revolutionaries. However, they were handicapped in several ways. As militants in a very special industry with a high proportion of skilled, male metalworkers, they found it difficult to visualise the general needs of the mass struggle. Starting with the problems facing the rank and file in their own workshops it was all too easy to lapse into sectionalism. Nonetheless these workers formed an industrial vanguard that could provide a new revolutionary party with roots in the key factories.

On the other hand there were Marxist thinkers who had a grasp of the overall strategy to be followed. People like John Maclean, Antonio Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg could have provided revolutionary parties with leadership and armed them with a thorough understanding of the capitalist crisis and the tasks of the proletariat. Yet despite their brilliance all of them lacked the organisational wherewithal to make their politics real to a broad section of workers.

The long traditions of separating industrial militancy and revolutionary theory in western Marxism meant that the political and industrial vanguards were tragically disunited. Despite the immense tasks that both of them faced in common they found it difficult to work together. Despite early co-operation in Glasgow, Maclean rowed with the leading militants of the Clyde Workers’ Committee. He denounced them for failing to push anti-war agitation to the fore, while they dismissed his ideas as unrealistic and a danger to the fragile unity in action their rank and file had won in the workshops. In Germany the relations between political and industrial vanguards were no better. Luxemburg’s tiny Spartakist group took the most principled stand on the war. Its slogan was given by Karl Liebknecht: ‘The enemy is at home’. But the group lacked roots in the class. In Liebknecht’s own constituency in the industrial heart of Berlin the Spartakist branch had just seven members – a chief engineer, a former technical engineer, a senior foreman, a foreman, a carpenter and two young workers. The result was that while the Spartakist newspaper was excellent in its denunciation of imperialism, it totally failed to discuss the growing strike movements or propose immediate tactics to take them forward. In turn the militant shop stewards discounted the Spartakists as ultra-left intellectuals on the side lines of working class struggle. Richard Müller, the leader of the Obleute saw a false opposition between his tactic of political mass strikes and the activities of the Spartakists as this passage shows:

The first political mass strike won no apparent gains for the workers, but from a psychological point of view it did more than millions of leaflets and speeches ... To violently press the German working class for one action after another however, was damaging in itself and bad for the movement, The Spartakist League failed to recognise this fact. [40]

In Italy a similar situation prevailed. One group of revolutionaries round Amadeo Bordiga called for establishing a revolutionary party nationally, but failed to link up with the vanguard workers in Turin. While his faction retained its sectarian purity the movement in Turin was trapped in its localist perspective.

Notwithstanding these arguments, within a few years of the war the political and industrial vanguards had united in revolutionary Communist parties. The socialist revolution in Russia was obviously central to this process. But much of the success was due to the fact that the need for a party had been shown by the experience of mass struggles and the rise and fall of council movements. Indeed the council movements had suggested a new way of building revolutionary parties. Before 1914 revolutionaries in the bourgeois democracies had either split away from the Social Democratic parties to found purist sects or remained trapped inside these mass reformist organisations. Now the mass struggles of the war had revealed a viable revolutionary practice upon which a new type of party could be built. They had mapped out a terrain on which socialists could undertake day-to-day activity without betraying their principles.

The council process, with its development from the point of production to state power, from the militant vanguard to the whole class, suggested both a method of action and a form of organisation. Firstly, it was now clear that the revolutionary chain of development did not begin at some indefinite future time. The shop stewards had prepared the ground for workers’ councils because they related concretely to the day to day issues that arose in the workshops. But to go beyond this initial stage they had always to ask how can this immediate issue be related to the broader class struggle; how can the struggle of a section be used to raise the general level of struggle? And secondly, these strategic questions had to be answered by working towards independent workers’ organisations. While trade unions and reformist parties could contain militant action in stable periods, during crises these organisations failed to answer current needs. At this point workers could break out of the traditional mould and build rank and file bodies that ultimately result in workers’ councils.

The councils movements of Europe during and after the First World War took revolutionaries a long way forward. Their ‘education in action’ was completed by the work of Comintern and its propagation of the principles of Leninism. For the Russian experience solved the problem of the seizure of state power – which was the life or death question for the councils. The answer depended on the interlocking of the revolutionary party, the councils and the masses: ‘the party set the Soviets in motion, the Soviets set in motion the workers, soldiers and to some extent the peasantry.’ [41]

Sowing the seeds

In the present predicament of the labour movement, discussion of workers’ councils may seem an irrelevant and unpardonable luxury. While it is true there is no immediate prospect of building councils, nevertheless western history shows that the foundations are laid long before the final struggle. Much more than in Russia, where the Soviets began with no rivalry from an established parliament or trade union movement, councils under bourgeois democracy must be consciously fought for by revolutionaries. In 1914 they were begun by tiny groups of militants who combined rejection of the ideology of national unity with rank and file popularity on the shopfloor. The same will no doubt be true of tomorrow’s councils.

So the council is more than a distant goal. It conditions our approach to the most common problems. Should workers fight for jobs, wages and conditions by depending on full-time officials and lobbying MPs or will victory only come through self-activity and rank and file solidarity? The division between reform and revolution – parliament and councils – is not something that is only of relevance on the barricades; it colours our daily activity as socialists today.

Preparation for workers’ councils is both necessary and possible today, if only on a limited level. The party can keep alive the memory of councils through its propaganda and education. Though we can only reach a small part of the class, knowledge of the past successes and failures is indispensable for the moment when the tempo of struggle picks up once more. The ability to lift sectional struggle to a higher level by generalising was the key to working class unity and the council. This too is possible today, if only on a small scale, through collections, deputations and token sympathy strikes, as we saw for the health workers’ dispute. Furthermore, while recognising the depth of the present downturn, it is important to be aware of the way in which mass struggle can suddenly develop. Thus the building of a network of militants, even if they are linked only by reading Socialist Worker or by receiving the occasional deputation of strikers, is part of that tradition of socialist ideas and self-activity out of which councils grow. Today we may only be able to link individuals, or militant groups of workers together on specific issues, but out of this embryo the mass strike committee in permanence – the workers’ council – can be born.

The council is both the creation and the creator of revolution, for it alone gives substance to the power of the proletariat. Yet the workers’ council is no magic wand. Its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. As a democratic expression of the collective organisation of the masses it is ruled by whichever party has won the confidence of the working class. While the council holds out the promise of the future, it also places a tremendous responsibility on the revolutionaries of today to build a party that can lead that movement to victory.


1. Quoted in Theses, Resolutions & Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (ed. A. Adler), London 1980, p. 34.

2. K. Marx, The Communist Manifesto, in the Revolutions of 1848, ed. D. Fernbach, Harmondsworth 1973, p. 69.

3. V.I. Lenin, On Soviet Socialist Democracy, Moscow 1962, p. 62.

4. J. Reed, Soviets in Action, International Socialism (first series) 69, p. 20.

5. Lenin, On Soviet Socialist Democracy, p. 93.

6. Rote Fahne, 25 November 1918, Berliner Tageblatt, 14 December 1918, Freiheit, 17 January 1919, Arbeiterrat, Nos. 5 and 9 (n.d.).

7. N. Bukharin, The Politics and Economics of the Transition Period, London 1979, p. 48.

8. Lenin, op. cit., p. 57.

9. Die Freiheit, 5 December 1918.

10. Lenin, op. cit., p. 84.

11. Ibid., p. 65.

12. Ibid., p. 68.

13. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 10, p. 19.

14. L. Trotsky, 1905, New York 1971, p. 104.

15. R. Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, New York 1970, p. 166.

16. R.A. Leeson (ed.), Strike. A Live History, London 1973, pp. 23–4.

17. Burgfrieden – the peace of the fortress – was the German name for this arrangement. In Britain the ‘Treasury Agreement’ had the same function. Although verbally in opposition Italy’s socialist and trade union movement did nothing to hinder war plans because its slogan was ‘neither support nor sabotage’.

18. Report of the Special Committee appointed by the Annual Conference of the Labour Party held at Manchester in January 1917 to inquire into a report upon the circumstances which resulted in the deportation in March 1916, of David Kirkwood and other workmen employed in Munitions factories in the Clyde District, published London 1917.

19. Clyde Workers’ Committee leaflet, Beveridge Collection on Munitions, in LSE, Vol. III, Item 15.

20. R. Müller, Vom Kaiserreich zur Republik, Vienna 1924, Vol. I, pp. 58–60.

21. J.T. Murphy, The Workers’ Committee, London 1972, p. 19.

22. Vanguard, December 1915.

23. Solidarity, February 1918.

24. A. Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings, 1919–20, London 1977, p. 95.

25. Ibid., p. 183.

26. L. Trotsky, Writings (1929), New York 1975, p. 146.

27. F.C. Carsten, Revolution in Central Europe, London 1972, p. 191.

28. For details, see E. Kolb, Arbeiterräte in der deutschen Innenpolitik, Düsseldorf 1962, pp. 92–100.

29. Luxemburg, op. cit., p. 185.

30. Deutsche Tagezeitung, quoted in Rote Fahne, 25 Nov 1918.

31. P. Scheidemann, Memoirs of a Social Democrat, London 1929, Vol. 2, p. 600.

32. The comment of Ernst Däumig, Independent Socialist leader on the First National Congress of German Councils.

33. Lenin, Works, Vol. 11, p. 125.

34. T. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 2, London 1976, p. 143.

35. The share of votes taken by the left parties in the Berlin council elections grew dramatically between November 1918 and March 1919, as was shown by the fall in SPD votes. However the main beneficiaries of the swing to the left were the centrist Independent Socialists, rather than the newly formed Communist Party which was only able to stand in February 1919 and won 9% of the votes.

36. Internationaler Sozialisten Kongress zu Stuttgart, 1907, Berlin 1907, p. 106. (Emphasis mine – DG)

37. The Socialist, 20 January 1919.

38. R. Luxemburg, Speech on the Party Programme, in A. & D. Prudhommeaux, Spartacus and the Commune of Berlin, Paris, n.d.

39. Gramsci, op. cit., p. 195.

40. Müller, op. cit., pp. 65–66.

41. L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, London 1934, pp. 130.

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